Legends of Spirit Cave: An Excerpt (Part 3)

Yellow Eyes said, “As you know, young friend, I have been a shaman with our people for many years. I have traveled to many faraway lands to study the ways of different people. I have watched you grow to the man you are today and I have an understanding of the ways of people and the spirit world. I know that old Mauwee has great trust and confidence in you and your abilities. He is anxious to have a new shaman of his blood to help guide his people through the difficult times that sometimes plague us. I must warn you, however, that learning to become a shaman is a lifelong endeavor. It will take many years of training and an absorption of many of life’s experiences. I suppose what I am trying to say, young friend, is that you are far from becoming a shaman. I am willing to help you learn, but please be aware, it will be several years before you will have earned the name shaman.”

Turtle was somewhat taken aback by the frankness of the words Yellow Eyes had spoken. He had not really thought it would take any great effort on his part to become a shaman, and to be accepted by his people as some sort of spiritual leader, freed from many of the burdens of the hunting and gathering lifestyle. After a few brief moments of contemplation, Turtle blurted out, “Well, what kind of experience do I need? Can you and others just tell me some things that would help me to become the type of shaman I would become?”

Yellow Eyes’ hunch had been correct. Turtle had vastly underestimated the effort required to become a shaman for the group. The old shaman, being the wise person he was, knew Mauwee was pushing Turtle along too fast on the road to greatness. He put his hand on the shoulder of the young man and gave him some of his words of wisdom, “Before you become a shaman, my friend, you will learn that old age and treachery will usually win out over youth and enthusiasm. I want you to be patient in your pursuit of your goals. It will not happen for several years to come. Let me tell you a story that may help to clarify what I mean.

“One time, long ago, there were many more buffalo along these slopes than you see here today. They were a breed of giant bison with exceedingly long horns. The hump on their back would stand well over a man’s head. One day, two of the giant buffalo bulls were standing on a hill overlooking a vast herd of their cows. One of the bulls was young and anxious, much like you are today. The other was much older and wiser, having spent many winters in the desert. The young bull looked out over the herd and said, ‘Let’s run down there and breed one of those cows.’ The older, wiser bull, chewing his cud, replied, ‘No, son, why don’t we just walk down there and breed all those cows?’”

Turtle smiled at the story he had heard. He knew Yellow Eyes was right about the issue of training and experience. He was somewhat embarrassed that the perceptive older man was able to understand these weaknesses so much better than Turtle himself.

Yellow Eyes then told Turtle, “I want to ask you a few questions. This is a test I sometimes use for young wannabe shamans. I am sure you know how deer droppings and rabbit poop are formed in little round pellets. Buffalo dung is found in round flat chips we can burn in our fires when it is dried. Bears crap in big, round steaming blobs full of grass and berry seeds. Everyone knows these things, but do you know why these things are true?”

“No,” Turtle replied after a brief period of contemplation. “I do not know why these things are true.”

“Well, let me see if I understand your desires,” said Yellow Eyes. “It seems to me you do not know shit, yet you desire to become a shaman. I must tell you young friend, you must educate yourself in all the ways of our world before you can fulfill your desire to become a shaman. First of all, you must decide what kind of shaman you will be. Then, you must devote your entire life, yes your very spirit and being, to learn the ways of the shaman you desire to be. Do not misunderstand me, friend. I believe you will become a great shaman one day. I will help you all I can. It is one of the duties I have in life. I know you will succeed.”

As was the custom among the people who traveled along the shores of the marsh, the group planned to stop for a couple of days to visit their friends who lived at the Lake of the Pyramid.

As the people prepared to begin their journey, there was a sudden realization that they must now pack with them a huge supply of mammoth meat in addition to all the other stores they had gathered for the past eight months. Some of the women had large burden baskets made of willow and bulrushes. Others had large flat bags woven from tules and grasses. The women usually carried all the provisions while the people traveled. This was said to allow the men freedom to hunt as they made their way through the countryside. Now it became obvious that in order to reach their winter storage cave, the men must share in the burden-carrying responsibility. The fun of the hunt was over; now it was time for the men to make some burden baskets and load up on provisions for the trip. There was considerable grumbling and cursing among the men who considered this to be women’s work The elders of the group met at the campfire to decide how to transport the bounty, and it was decided that everyone who eats must carry the food. The last thing the people needed right now was anyone running around hunting for meat, when they could barely carry what they already had.

And so, the group departed the Black Island Marsh loaded down with more supplies than ever before on their way south for the winter. Men, women and children all shared in carrying the wealth. Some young boys even made small pack baskets for their dogs. The animals bounced along as if unaware of the burden. Spirits were high among the people, despite the heavy loads, for they knew that after about five days they could rest again at Pyramid Lake. Normally, the journey may have taken less time, but this year the elders allowed five days, rather than the usual three or four. After that, it was only about another five days to the Stillwater Marsh, and their winter home.

After the second day of the journey south, the heavily burdened caravan of travelers came to the familiar hot springs at the southern end of the Black Island Marsh known as Ger-lak. The hot springs were a welcome resting place for people traveling the marshes. There were shallow pools of steaming water where the people could bathe and relax after incredibly difficult trips across the deserts and along the marshes. There was an old hermit who lived there named Bruneau who looked forward to the arrival of visitors. Bruneau saw the long procession of marsh people winding their way along the trail long before the people were near the hotsprings. He came running out to meet them with waving arms, not wearing a scrap of clothing. He was a friend of Mauwee and Yellow Eyes from many years of greeting them for visits during the annual rounds of food gathering.

Bruneau walked along with the travelers chattering in his excited tongue, making sweeping, waving motions with his hands and arms, obviously stimulated by the presence of human visitors. He was a businessman of sorts, and he was always ready to trade trinkets and items he had made while living alone at his camp, for food and other things brought by the visitors. It was understood by all that it was required to give the old hermit a generous supply of foodstuffs in exchange for use of the campsite and the bathing ponds. The troupe of travelers quickly made a camp for the night and settled down around a campfire to be entertained by old Bruneau during supper.

That evening, everyone feasted on fresh antelope Bruneau had killed and barbecued over coals of mountain mahogany. Pronghorn antelope had a distinct, sweet flavor relished by the travelers. This was a welcome change from the glut of mammoth meat the people had consumed over the past several days. After the dinner, Bruneau began his usual performance of storytelling. These sessions always fascinated the people, especially the youngsters, who were mesmerized by the talented old man and his performance of traditional mythical stories.

He began by telling of the time when his people traveled into this region from a land far toward the rising sun. He was a young man then, but he was plagued by painful attacks of arthritis soon after his arrival in the marsh country. It became so severe, he could no longer walk from the terrible pain in his joints. At last, the family of poor Bruneau could no longer carry him around with them from place to place, so they decided to abandon him. The family had come from a place called Jarbidge, but they had to leave to search for a new homeland. Having found the marshland of the Black Island Marsh unsuitable for their lifestyle, they decided they must move on. They knew Bruneau would never make the journey, so they selected a comfortable place for him to live by the hotsprings.

Bruneau was able to catch a few quail and rabbits with traps from time to time, and dig enough cattail roots to eat in order to survive. Every day, he soaked in the hotspring pond and even covered himself with the hot, soothing mud along the bank. He soon got accustomed to the sulfur smell similar to that of rotten eggs, typical of the hot spring pools. Eventually, he noticed that he was feeling less and less pain as he continued to spend many hours in the hot mineral water. After the first year, he was able to walk again and do a remarkable job of hunting and providing for himself. His only problem was the hunger for human companionship and the knowledge that he was confined to living within reach of the hot water in order to stay well. Fortunately, a few hardy souls passed this way every year providing him with precious companionship.

Bruneau’s story made the people realize that no matter how difficult things may seem, there was always someone else having an even more difficult time making their way through life. Soon it was time for the old man to tell the story of one of the traditional legends of his people. The marsh people had their own myths and legends, but they were always fascinated to hear the stories from other cultures and tribes of people from faraway lands. When asked how he and his family came to be in the marsh country so many years before, Bruneau began his tale.

“My people were driven out of their homeland long ago by an evil spirit in human form named Tsawhawbitts. We were an ancient civilization of people living in a lush hunting grounds along the Bruneau river, from which I got my name. We were a peaceful people, living in comfort along the fertile river valley. The grass there grew tall, the trees were green, wild game abounded, and fish were plentiful in the streams. Small bands of our tribe made their homes in many of the rolling valleys, enjoying a life of plenty, but the serenity of this existence could not be maintained.

“Gradually, a tale of superstition and fear passed among the encampments concerning an evil spirit in the form of a giant man named Tsawhawbitts, a giant who stalked the hunters with the same sure cunning they in turn employed in hunting wild game.

“Tsawhawbitts was huge! In one step he could cross the turbulent Bruneau. In a few fleet strides he could climb a mountain. No one was safe! On his broad back the giant carried a basket which he filled with our hunters for his own feast. Whenever he became hungry, the giant would pull out one of the men and eat them. From his great height Tsawhawbitts could spy on lone wanderers and swoop down upon them before they could flee. Snatching them up from the river bank or a tall pine thicket, Tsawhawbitts would stuff them in his basket and then disappear into a crater named Mount Ichabod where he made his home.”

Bruneau was a remarkable storyteller. He embellished his words with an entertaining display of dancing around, making hand gestures and acting out the story as he went along. He even had the good taste to cover up his previously naked body with a costume of his tribe’s traditional dress which consisted of tanned deerskin trousers, moccasins and a beautiful feathered headdress.

Legends of Spirit Cave: An Excerpt (Part 4)